HONG KONG — The latest round of talks between representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government predictably failed to make progress, and now hundreds of Tibetans are gathering in Dharamsala, India for a weeklong crisis meeting to discuss the way forward.
Since the two sides had a totally different understanding of the nature of the talks, it was not surprising that they could not reach an agreement.
The Dalai Lama’s representatives wanted to discuss the situation in Tibet — where there were riots in March — and genuine autonomy for the region. However, the Chinese government insists there is no Tibet problem and says it represents the interests of all ethnic minorities, including Tibetans: The Tibetan government-in-exile is only “a product created by a small group of separatists who launched an armed rebellion in 1959.”
Beijing’s position is ambiguous. It says talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives can only be about his own future role. But in July, Chinese officials invited views on the degree or form of autonomy the Dalai Lama is seeking. So, the Dalai Lama’s representatives this time around presented a “Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People,” which called, among other things, for a single administrative entity governing all areas inhabited by Tibetans — an area roughly a fourth of China’s territory. The memorandum also called for Tibetans to create their own regional government with the central government in Beijing powerless to abrogate or change Tibetan decisions.
Beijing rejected these proposals out of hand, viewing them as but thinly disguised attempts at independence. At a press conference announcing the failure of the talks, Chinese officials said the Tibetan leader should “give up his ideas and actions to split China.”
It appears that China, which sent additional troops into Tibet after the disturbances, believes it has the situation under control. It sees the Dalai Lama himself as the root of the problem, and now that he is 73 and ailing, Beijing thinks it is just a matter of time before he dies and the problem is solved.
The latest meeting was the third such round this year. In May, China agreed to resume talks, which had not been held since 2006, after calls from American and European leaders in the wake of disturbances in Tibetan areas and a Chinese military crackdown.
Renewal of the dialogue was sufficient to keep Western leaders quiet. Now, with the Olympics over, Beijing evidently sees little need to keep talking, although Chinese officials insist that the door is always open if the Dalai Lama wishes to “return to a patriotic stance.”
With China taking such a hard line, it is little wonder that Tibetans in exile are meeting to re-examine their options. But they don’t have many options. For years, there has been discussion as to whether they should opt for independence or for true autonomy within China. Similarly, there were arguments over whether they should resort to violence to achieve their goal.
Independence is unrealistic since no country in the world recognizes Tibet as a separate country. A decision to resort to terrorism would have to be disavowed by the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Moreover, the Indian government no doubt would withdraw its hospitality to the exiled Tibetans, which has been extended for half a century.
Besides, since China indicates its willingness to continue the dialogue, a decision by Tibetan exiles to stop talking would send a negative signal to the international community, where many hope for an eventual compromise.
The Dalai Lama sounds like a man at the end of his rope. “Tibetans are being handed down a death sentence,” he said recently. “This ancient nation, with an ancient cultural heritage, is dying.”
Yet, even before the convening of the “crisis meeting,” his aides announced that he continues to believe that dialogue is the only way to resolve the deadlock.
The plight of China’s Mongols offers an object lesson for Tibetans. Mongols now account for only 20 percent of the population of Inner Mongolia and Mongol identity is under threat. The migration of Han Chinese into Tibet will lead to a similar result. Tibet may lose not only its autonomy but its distinct culture and religion. And there is the danger that the threat of extinction may lead to violence.
If Tibet explodes after the Dalai Lama’s death, China may well regret its decision not to take him seriously. No one will be there to pacify angry Tibetans.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. (Frank.email@example.com)
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